This strategy was developed in partnership with Dr. Gregory R. Witkowski and his students in the ‘Disaster and Community: Philanthropic and Nonprofit Engagement’ graduate course at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. The research and writing were carried out by Michela Masotti (lead), Rachel Liu, Riley Reinhart and Alexandra Stephens, with final editing by CDP staff.


Disaster relief entails all actions taken during or immediately following a disaster. While each disaster event is unique and the phases of disaster do not follow predictable timelines, the relief phase can last for several weeks and often blends into the recovery (or at least early recovery) phase.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) outlines examples of short-term needs that funders should look to address during this phase:

  • Mass care and shelter.
  • Clearing of debris and primary transportation routes.
  • Reopening businesses and reestablishing cash flow.
  • Emotional and psychological health services and treatment.
  • Public health and emergency health care.
  • Mitigation activities to prevent further damage.

Some of these needs may be best addressed by the government, for example, the clearing of debris, or for-profit sector, re-establishing cash flow, but others can benefit from philanthropic funders and nonprofits. Funders are advised to recognize FEMA-funded programs, engage across sectors and avoid duplications.

According to the Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy: Data to Drive Decisions report, 51% of funds are donated during this phase, despite ongoing needs in the recovery and reconstruction phase. Since individual donors tend to support relief, institutional funders should keep in mind long-term needs that may arise throughout the disaster when making funding decisions.

There are many kinds of organizations involved in providing disaster relief in the U.S.:

  1. The American Red Cross has a central place in the FEMA response plan and works closely with first responders to assist with evacuations, initial first aid, clearing and examining structures, and other activities that allow a community to process a disaster.
  2. Organizations that are members of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOADs), and the state and territory counterparts, are often at the scene of disasters within days to offer shelter, distribute resources, provide clean-up support and more. NVOAD members aim to mitigate and alleviate the impacts of disasters. Their response focuses on the most common disaster type, They promote the effective delivery of services and commitment to the 4C principles: cooperation, communication, coordination and collaboration. Many external organizations leave within a month or less after their deployment, at which point the recovery is dependent primarily upon local resources.
  3. Many local organizations pivot from their mission work to respond to disasters and fill needs. Schools, faith-based organizations, recreation facilities, libraries and cultural centers also play essential relief roles because of their community status and connecting role, offering meeting points, quick resources and often shelter.
  4. Community foundations are able to act quickly before government relief arrives and help organize the community. For example, the Seattle Foundation created the COVID-19 Response Fund and raised $28 million by December 2020 for its community. Community foundations are positioned to support relief because of their awareness of their community’s specific needs.

It is important for funders to avoid duplicating areas of relief that will be covered by the government. Within the U.S., FEMA’s National Disaster Recovery Framework breaks down the roles and responsibilities of government-level funding during relief. Internationally, each country has a different process for providing assistance to affected individuals or communities. However, in all cases, philanthropic funding can usually flow faster than government dollars, so it is important that funders understand the timing of relief aid in their specific area.

Innovative Practices

Ideally, the relief phase consists of enacting plans created during times of “blue skies.” Funders should develop continuity of operations plans in case a disaster hits their local community. They should also create communication and grantmaking materials and processes for any disaster to which they are likely to respond. Funders should also develop a list of core organizations that they will fund immediately following a disaster. Use the “blue sky” times to build relationships, learn key contacts and conduct due diligence. Here are practices for responding immediately and effectively following a disaster:

  • Give monetary over in-kind donations when possible. In-kind donations can divert energy and funds from nonprofits in their relief efforts because they take time and money to collect, sort and transport. They can actually raise the cost of the response due to hefty long-distance shipping expenses and storage fees upon arrival. Also, delivering this kind of aid in disaster areas is often a logistical challenge due to damaged transportation infrastructure. Further, many of these goods have limited utility to the victims. At worst, in-kind donations can lead to disaster zones becoming dumping grounds for inappropriate goods and hurting the local economies. By donating cash, trusted aid organizations can buy exactly what they need to provide the most effective relief.
  • Ensure your donation is going to a trustworthy organization. In the chaotic aftermath of a disaster, unscrupulous individuals can take advantage of donors’ goodwill. Recent disasters have seen an increase in fake and unverified social media fundraisers and GoFundMe pages that divert funds from those in need. Conduct due diligence by consulting trustworthy sources, including Candid, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), Charity Navigator,, FEMA, InterAction, NVOAD, established news outlets and community groups.
  • Fund locally-led disaster relief. Invest in local, grassroots organizations with community connections and empower disaster-affected people to decide how funds are used. As families’ and individuals’ needs vary greatly, cash assistance is a great way to provide the flexibility required to resume lives. For example, the Greater Washington Community Foundation distributed $26 million in cash assistance during COVID-19 in order to bring speed and equity to populations hit hardest by the crisis.
  • Creating a singular emergency fund, or funding one created by a community foundation, has become common practice in disaster relief. It is important that these funds are created rapidly and distributed flexibly to respond to all specific community needs that arise throughout the relief phase and into recovery.
  • Fund organizations that are already working with marginalized and disproportionately affected populations. Disasters exacerbate inequality because those with fewer means have less of a buffer and often do not have the social capital needed to access resources. Government-funded relief has historically neglected many underserved communities. For example, after Hurricane Harvey, 52% of white people affected by the storm reported receiving the aid they needed, while only 46% of Hispanic people and 32% of Black people did. Funders should consider prioritizing these populations including older adults, disabled, low-income and non-English speaking communities.
  • Funders should consult the affected community and engage in participatory grantmaking to ensure they are meeting needs that honor the local culture. Past disasters have seen deliveries from actors of food, clothing and other relief items that violate the cultural or religious norms of the affected community, such as sending canned pork to Muslim communities after the Nepal earthquake of 2015.
  • Participate in and fund inter-sector collaborations to more effectively support affected communities. During COVID-19, Airbnb drew upon its many hosts to house health care workers and volunteers in partnership with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Collaborations like this more efficiently allocate monetary and physical resources by leveraging the for-profit network during a business decline to aid those in need. It creates a system for response as well. The COVID-19 partnership built on earlier responses by the company and Airbnb continued this practice after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

What Funders Are Doing

The following are examples of practices that philanthropic organizations have supported, developed and/or implemented during the relief phase of a disaster.

  • Haiti’s August 2021 7.2 magnitude earthquake, followed by Tropical Storm Grace, struck southwest Haiti between the Nippes and Sud Departments. These consecutive disasters greatly exacerbated pre-existing factors in Haiti including political instability, civil unrest, poverty, hunger and ongoing needs from past disasters. Despite the scale of the disaster, funders learned from past disaster relief failures and exemplified effective collaboration and coordination practices during relief efforts. A coordination and information-sharing mechanism was created in collaboration between the Haitian government, police and international relief organizations. This facilitated the distribution of relief supplies throughout the damaged infrastructure. Funders also exemplified an effective rapid response, launching a Flash Appeal for the earthquake days after the disaster and raising $81.3 million, or 43.4% of the total appeal. Importantly, relief efforts prioritized marginalized people. Funds were used to identify areas of concentration of people with disabilities who were given priority food and cash relief. For instance, the Haitian Federation of Associations and Institutions for the Disabled carried out mapping exercises to identify those individuals to ensure they were not left out of relief efforts due to a lack of mobility or social capital. Finally, many funders prioritized direct cash assistance, distributing more than $7 million, to allow affected people to decide for themselves how to recover from the disaster.
  • The Beirut explosion of 2020, in which 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded in Lebanon, received support from philanthropy for relief. The UN’s Flash Appeal raised $165 million, or nearly 84% of the total revised appeal, and prioritized cash assistance. Nearly 92,000 people were provided with multi-purpose cash assistance. During the relief phase, funders exemplified the importance of locally-led relief, in which they prioritized funding community initiatives to fill needs. Funds were used to pressure Lebanon’s officials to take action, rebuild homes and buildings with historical significance, and provide supplies to marginalized populations, especially women and girls. Finally, funders exemplified an innovative response. For instance, the Cash Task Force, a collaboration across sectors, launched an assistance coordination system using blockchain technology. Its purpose was to avoid the duplication of efforts and cash assistance by different partners and actors in order to reach more people.
  • In 2019, Hurricane Dorian became one of the longest-lasting Atlantic hurricanes, hitting the Bahamas, North Carolina and Canada. Grand Bahama and Abaco experienced 48 hours of hurricane-force winds that destroyed entire communities. During the relief phase, funders exemplified effective collaboration efforts across all three sectors to respond to the disaster. For example, local nonprofit Good360 partnered with the UPS Foundation to create a transportation model for distributing relief items through damaged infrastructure. Additionally, funders illustrated the best practice of providing funds to local, Bahamian nonprofits who knew best how to respond to their communities’ needs. Funders also prioritized innovative responses by funding water storage and water, sanitation and hygiene outreach programs, along with building emergency shelters using new solar microgrids. Not only did these interventions provide immediate relief, they also set communities up for long-term sustainability and future disaster mitigation. Other funders prioritized marginalized populations by funding Global Emergency Relief, Recovery & Reconstruction (GER3). GER3 talked to communities to identify populations in need of shelter, such as older adults, people with disabilities, and women and children. GER3 also used innovative approaches to relief through their cash-for-work model, in which they hired men and women from affected communities to rebuild their communities. By providing them with income, affected people were empowered to help themselves and their community recover.

Key Takeaways

  1. Prioritize monetary donations over in-kind donations.
  2. Use communication and collaboration to maximize impact.
  3. Capitalize on media attention before the public loses interest and set aside funds for future needs that arise.
  4. The flexibility and timing of the relief response influences the effectiveness of the recovery and reconstruction phases.
  5. Relief should be equity and social justice centered.

Further Reading